For more than 200 years, the former Russian settlement in California has surprised locals and guests alike — sometimes just by the fact of its existence.
Pictured: The Fort Ross, a former Russian settlement in California. Photo: Pavel Koshkin
When asked about Fort Ross, the 19th century Russian outpost in California, the majority of both Russians and Americans look very puzzled. Few people on either side of the Pacific are aware of it at all. A handful of Americans have heard of the site — but in its other role, as a California State Park.
“Often people come to Fort Ross because of recreational opportunities: the snorkeling, the kayaking or the hiking,” said Hank Birnbaum, program manager at Fort Ross. “And they later know a bit about the history, and they are totally surprised what a unique place this is.”
Birnbaum has been working at the park for nine years, and says that the Fort Ross Bicentennial in 2012 helped increase awareness about the history of the site.
“Thanks to the attention of American and Russian mass media to our 200th anniversary and our increased and continued presence of Fort Ross on social media, we’re now ‘on the map!’” he said. “Nonetheless, we continue to welcome first-time visitors who ask the same question I did 40 years ago: ‘A Russian fort in California?’ Surprise!”
The Russians are coming... to California
Russian presence in the territory that later became the United States began after explorers Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov reached Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1741-1742. They discovered that these lands were rich with sea otters, which were prized for their fur. In 1772, the first permanent Russian fur trading post was founded in Unalaska, today the largest city of the Aleutian Islands.
Formal incorporation of the territories by Russia did not take place until 1799, when Tsar Paul I issued a charter for the Russian-American company (RAC), giving it a monopoly over all Russian ventures in North America. This joint-stock company, backed by the state, quickly expanded and established colonies in present-day alaska, hawaii and california.
Fort Ross, 84 miles from San Francisco, was the southern-most settlement of the RAC. “Russians came to California for three main reasons: fur, food and trade,” Birnbaum said.
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“There was a ‘soft gold’ rush in the North Pacific... with Russians, Americans, English and others seeking the luxuriant and valuable fur of the sea otter and Northern Fur Seal. Plus, in the north and the Bering Sea region, Russians were tired of eating fish and seal meat, and wanted food that they were accustomed to: beef, bread, fruit and vegetables. Here in California they found — grew and traded — the food and other supplies that they so badly needed in Alaska,” Birnbaum added, pointing out that establishing the Fort made trade with the Spanish missions of Alta California possible.
Fort Ross was founded by RAC officer Ivan Kuskov in spring 1812. Twenty-five Russians and 80 Alaska natives made up the original settler group. Archeological works that have taken place in the Fort since the 1950s confirmed the active presence of native Americans in the settlement.
“In 1990-1994, archaeologists from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, worked to relocate and identify individual graves in the so-called Russian cemetery,” said Edward Breck Parkman, a senior state archaeologist with California State Parks.
“Whereas we originally expected to find the graves of around 50 Russian men, we ended up finding over 130 graves of men, women, and children, many of whom were Alaska natives. Additionally, some of the graves contained numerous glass trade beads and broken ceramics,” Parkman said.
Among other artifacts found were Russian-made bricks, a Russian sauna on the beach below Fort Ross and artifacts made of Alaskan slate and bone harpoon points, some of which are displayed at the park’s Visitor Center. Archeological excavations also revealed the presence of Kashaya Pomo Indians, on whose ancestral land the outpost was built. In 1987- 1988, archaeologists from Sonoma State University discovered Kashaya Pomo tools for obtaining fish, shell-fish, and seaweed.
“Most scholars estimate that there were around 1,500–5,000 Kashia here at the time the Russians founded Fort Ross,” said Jerry Pinola, 54, a member of the tribe now known as the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians from Santa Rosa. “Our people, Kashia, say it was much more than that.”
Pinola and his family are members of the Kashia’s Nu Nu Shinal dance group, which takes an active role in activities at Fort Ross. Although Pinola often passed the Fort on the way to the Kashia reservation, he discovered the park only four years ago.
“It’s very impressive what the Russian merchants built here. To think that they crossed thousands of miles of ocean and came ashore on this very spot, they had amazing courage,” Pinola said.
Today, Kashia tribal citizens maintain their dance circle outside the Fort’s walls. They do their sacred dancing six times a year — on special occasions and holidays, as well as at several private ceremonies that take place at night when the park is closed.
Their ancestors performed seasonal work in the Fort and were paid in flour, meat and clothing. French sea captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly noted in his book about his travels in California in 1826-1829 that at Fort Ross, a population of about 60 Russians, 80 “Kodiaks,” [ed. Alaska natives] and about 80 Indians, all lived in relative harmony.
It is also known that Kashia women and Russian men intermarried, and that some Indian wives and children accompanied their husbands and fathers north to Alaska and even to Russia after the sale of the colony to American entrepreneur John Sutter in 1841. The possible presence of Kashia descendants in Russia was one reason Kaylee Pinola, 19, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to visit the country, which she did in 2014.
“The potential that some Kashia members ended up in Russia is very high, and we felt them when we were in Russia. During our trip we visited the Kunstkamera museum in St. Petersburg that houses hundreds of artifacts from our old ones — many of the items were items that we still use today and make the same way that our old ones did back then. Every day since we returned home, I have been waiting for the opportunity to return,” Pinola said.
Reasons behind the sale of Fort Ross were both economical and political. The fur-trading business was in decline, as the population of sea otter was hunted almost to extinction. Additionally, a formal trade agreement in 1838 between the Russian-American Company and settlements in British Columbia to provide food for Alaska rendered Fort Ross unnecessary.
At the same time, the Mexican government’s active encouragement of new settlers into the area and a growing influx of Americans posed a looming challenge to Russian claims over the territory, which neither the imperial government in distant St. Petersburg nor the Russian-American company was able to meet.
On Jan. 1, 1842, Alexander Rotchev, the last governor of the colony, and about 100 colonists sailed from Bodega Bay headed for the city of Sitka in Alaska. After 30 years, the flag of the Russian-American Company was lowered at Fort Ross, and the Russian epoch in the history of California came to an end.
Fort Ross as a spiritual center for the Russian diaspora
For 65 years, Fort Ross was privately held. In the second half of the 19th cen tury, it had a port, which was used extensively by ranchers in the surround ing community. There was a store, a post office and a telegraph station; the old Russian buildings housed a hotel, a dance hall and a saloon. The orthodox chapel, erected in 1825, was turned into the stable.
In 1903, the stockade and surrounding land were purchased by the California historical landmarks commission. Three years later, in March 1906, it was turned over to the State of California for preservation and restoration as a state historic monument. This timing proved to be unfortunate, however.
Fort Ross plays a sacred and unifying role for the Russian-American community. Photo: Pavel Koshkin
As San Francisco-based historian Maria Sakovich wrote in her article “Our Shared Heritage: Highlights from the History of Fort Ross State Historic Park,” which was presented at the 2012 bicentennial conference: “Just one month later, the earthquake of April 18, 1906, which destroyed much of San Francisco, damaged the historic buildings at Fort Ross. The walls of the chapel collapsed and the roof, still in tact, fell to the ground. It would be 10 years before funding would be available for its repair.”
Sakovich closely studied the role of the Russian diaspora in saving Fort Ross because of a personal connection — her grandfather, Vladimir Sakovich, held the first 20th century Russian orthodox service in the Fort Ross chapel in 1925. After 1920, the Russian population in San Francisco grew quickly as refugees from the Bolshevik revolution arrived on the West coast. Largely upper and middle class, these Russians arrived with little from their previous life.
“I don’t know the numbers in 1925, but throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Russian refugee population was probably around 7,500,” Sakovich said. “Probably aware of this influx of citizens of the former Russian empire, William S. Borba, a member of California fraternal organization Native Sons of The Golden West (NSGW), made contact with the clergy at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco and invited them to the settlement.
NSGW had been taking care of the chapel for the previous few years and held an annual gathering at Fort Ross on the Fourth of july,” Sakovich said. The day before the service, her grandfather and some 50 people started their trip from San Francisco at eight in the morning; they arrived at five in the afternoon.
“Because it was so late, we had to spend the night right there next to the church, around several campfires, the hospitable farmers from nearby bringing food,” Father Sakovich noted in his pastoral journal. “Next morning, with the remaining pilgrims, we held an obednitsa [a type of service], and around noon departed, leaving the church decorated with flowers and icons.”
In late 1930s, a group of enthusiasts from the Russian Historical Society in America measured and took photographs of the fort. They also found the chapel’s bell in Petaluma, California.
“We were met in Petaluma by a member of the local parlor [chapter] of the NSGW, who showed us an old shed, inside which we found the old Fort Ross bell,” society member Victor Povich noted. “There were religious inscriptions in old Church Slavonic... and another inscription in Russian stated that the bell was cast in St. Petersburg at the foundry of Master Merchant Michael Makarov Stukolkin.”
In a special ceremony at Fort Ross on Labor Day 1945, with representatives from the NSGW, the State Park Commission and the Russian Historical Society, the bell, together with “an exact replica of the flag of the Russian american company,” was presented to the State of California.
Today Fort Ross continues to play a sacred and unifying role for the Russian-American community, especially for those who work in Silicon Valley. Members of “Russian House Kedry,” a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining and sharing Russian cultural traditions in California, have taken part in the Fort Ross Festival for 15 years.
For more information about the Fort Ross Dialogue read: "Fort Ross forum: Fostering a new dialogue between Russia, the US"
“We first came here in 2001, just few families with their kids,” said Geliya Kudryavtseva, a clinical researcher in Sunnyvale, California and a member of the “Kedry” Board of Directors. “We wanted to find out more about our compatriots, who had been here before. Life in Silicon Valley is super technological, so we wanted to find a place for our kids to feel its simplicity. Fort Ross is perfect for that, volunteers can try so many things here! Cook on the fire in the Russian oven, work with old instruments, do crafts, shoot from historical rifles.”
“Kedry” is made up of about 20 families, most of whom are programmers, scientists and business owners. But when they volunteer in the park, they are dressed in historical costumes, organize folk games, sing traditional village songs and act in the theater.
“For visitors, we are the revived inhabitants of Fort Ross. We are always asked a lot of questions, both in Russian and English,” Kudryavtseva said. “Through holidays spent in the park, Russian history of the 19th century becomes an organic part of the modern life of our kids. Knowledge of Russian culture and language comes not in class, not from a book or museum, but in a creative form.”
Where the present meets the past
Throughout the 20th century, Fort Ross has been managed by California State Parks. in 1973, the Fort Ross Conservancy (FRC), an independent non-profit, was founded to support the work and restoration efforts at the fort. FRC is responsible for educational programs, environmental activities and fundraising. It organizes more than 20 events during the year, including a Harvest Festival, Alaska Native Day, Kashia Day and the main celebration of the year, the Fort Ross Festival.
For many locals, the park has become a place that has changed their views of Russia. One such local is Hank Birnbaum. He first visited the park in the late 1970s and was impressed by the “beautiful unspoiled landscape of coastal redwood hills descending to a marine terrace and inviting sandy ocean cove.” His interest in the history of the place took him to the Soviet Union in 1983. He moved to Siberia in 1988 and lived there until 2004.
Upon returning to california, birnbaum realized the only place he really wanted to work was Fort ross. in 2007, he began to work there with california state parks as a park in- terpretive specialist/docent. later he moved to Frc. birnbaum says that his experience in siberia helps him in his work in a number of ways.
Video by Igor Davydov
“I can speak Russian, so i’m able to better welcome our many Russian-speaking visitors to Fort Ross, helping them feel welcome,” Birnbaum said. “The Baikal village where I lived for many years, Bolshoye Goloustnoye, was mostly ‘off the grid’ when I first arrived. People lived fairly simply, directly tied to the land (with their gardening, fishing, hunting, livestock)... a bit like it was at settlement ross 200 years ago! This knowledge helps me better understand what it was like here earlier... helping our visitors and staff also step back in time...”
During his tenure at the park, Birnbaum has experienced Fort Ross’s decline and revival. “From 2008 to 2012, the State of California was experien cing a budget crisis. California State Parks were in debt and Fort Ross was partially closed,” he remembered.
At that time, Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak petitioned in favor of the park, but then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised nothing. Considerable support for maintaining the site came from the Renova Group of Companies, owned by Russian businessman and philanthropist Viktor Vekselberg. On june 22, 2010, a memorandum of understanding between the Renova Group of Companies and the State of California, and between Renova Group and Fort Ross Conservancy was signed in San Francisco in the presence of then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.
Vekselberg himself visited the park not long before the agreement was made, and decided to support it almost immediately.
“In my opinion, the historical period when the settlement was founded is unique. In those times, Russia exported high technologies and not raw materials, our compatriots built the first shipyards and windmills on the West coast of North America,” Vekselberg said.
His U.S.-based Renova Fort Ross Foundation has provided essential support to Fort Ross, funding the restoration of the historic Rotchev House roof, the stabilization of the historic orchard and upgrades to the fort’s Visitor Center, among other things. Together with The Link of Times Foundation, it sponsored construction of a replica of a his torical windmill in 2012, which, for Vekselberg stands as a “symbol of Russian-American relations during their best times, not overshadowed by any confrontations.”
The Founda tion also supports the Stanford U.S.- Russia Forum (SURF), which brings together students and scholars from both countries annually.
The support from local citizens, the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and corporations such as Transneft, Sovcomflot, and Chevron has been critical in maintaining the fort, according to Birnbaum.
“All of them worked together with Renova Fort Ross Foundation to create a truly memorable bicentennial celebration and bolster our ongoing work at Fort Ross,” he said. “With their support, much has been accomplished — the premiere of a new documentary that runs in the Visitor Center, new historically accurate costumes and scenarios, preservation of our national historic landmark rotchev house, and [at the event] over 6,000 guests were wowed by live performances from Pyatnitsky Folk Ensemble with the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop. Our bicentennial was definitely one for the record books.”
Thanks to the revival of interest in the Fort caused in part by the bicentennial, those with a vested interest in the site hope that the future will produce even more opportunities for remembering Russia’s role in California history.
The article was initially published in Russia Direct’s special project “U.S.-Russia Shared Frontiers."